When "Don Pasquale" first premiered in January of 1843, it joined a long tradition of opera buffa, or comedic operas, that had begun a century before. The opera’s composer, Gaetano Donizetti, was a force in the opera scene of the time — this was one of 65 popular operas he completed during his 51 years. His works ran the gamut, from funny to deathly serious tragedies (like this famous one, which — spoiler — ends in heartbreak and the death of basically everyone).
The funny parts of the original "Don Pasquale" are the hilarious antics of Ernesto and his love, Norina, who go to great and mischievous lengths to trick his uncle — Don Pasquale — into letting them marry even though she is (gasp!) a widow. These deceptions include Norina pretending to be someone else and fake-marrying the elderly uncle, an elaborate moonlight pretend (but sort of real) lover’s rendezvous, and other over-the-top, delicious tropes opera lovers have come to expect from these storylines. It ends with everyone getting along (it’s a comedy after all), and Don Pasquale agreeing he was just being foolish to stop true love from coming to fruition.
Donizetti may have been a creative powerhouse, but I can assure you he never envisioned the brilliant, creative new imagining this Pride season by Opera MODO, a queer-led opera company dedicated to
creating opportunities for young and emerging artists. Opera MODO’s adaptation of the classic piece, renamed "D[x]n Pasquale," grabs the inherent concepts with both hands and makes them wholly universal, spectacularly queer and deeply thoughtful — all the while retaining the silliness and fun of the original.
“This opera has a universal theme — the idea of a family member who doesn't approve of who their dependent family member loves,” says Patty Roache, who adapted the piece for Opera MODO. “This theme that worked in [19th century] Italy, now it can actually be understood as a really queer story that happens to so many LGBTQ people. We took that idea and worked with it to make [the opera] relevant and beautiful.”
View this post on Instagram
Originally slated for premiere in the spring of 2020, "D[x]n Pasquale" was postponed indefinitely when the pandemic swept the world with shutdowns. “It actually gave us the opportunity to take out time, not to rush the process,” says Roache, “I took two years to really flesh out the libretto.” The resultant story ended up inviting in a veritable smorgasbord of queer community elements, with gender non-conforming characters, drag artists, folks who identify with kink and BDSM culture, and more. The miserly uncle is reborn as Dawn Pasquale, Ernesto gets a glow-up as Ernie (who is non-binary) and Norina expresses the complexities of her experience as a dominatrix.
“A lot of these ideas stemmed from my own queer interests and explorations over time,” says Roache. “It’s been so beautiful to have a platform to explore parts of my own queer identity.”
To that end, they did a lot of research on various philosophies and communities, learning about and speaking with people for whom polyamory, BDSM and kink identities are a way of life. This also included attending workshops led by the IDC (Intimacy Directors and Coordinators). “BDSM and kink can get stigmatized in stage representations, really generalized in a way that doesn’t [allow for] authentic exploration. When I was working on how to fit [these elements] into our story, I asked myself how to pinpoint the specific kink identities of the characters. Norina moonlights as a dominatrix, and she is a caring and loving Dom who really enjoys giving pleasure and making sure her submissives are taken care of, but also enjoys seeing how they react. I really wanted to make the characters authentic queer identities, instead of just general queer identities.”
Roache, who has worked extensively in musical theater, collaborated closely with Opera MODO’s artistic director, Dr. Steven McGhee, to ensure the synergy of the libretto and the original score. The two based the new text on an English translation of the original Italian, going aria by aria, recitativo by recitativo, to develop a lyrical world that would work with Donizetti’s signature bel canto style. Bel canto (literally “beautiful singing” in Italian) is a style of opera that is particularly extra — think lots of long, highly decorative, elaborate musical phrases. Donizetti was known for challenging singers with this style of writing, which was meant to highlight the prowess of the performers. Being a little (or a lot) extra also happens to work pretty well with the extravagance of drag and camp, which was perfect for Roache and McGhee’s artistic aims.
As Opera MODO takes "D[x]n Pasquale" on tour throughout Michigan, starting in Detroit on June 9, McGhee will accompany the vocalists by playing a piano reduction of the original orchestral score. Roache described this as “running a marathon every night.”
It couldn't be a better time for the opera, as Pride Month is a time of celebration, but it’s also a time of revolution — of taking up space and being defiant. By joining other LGBTQIA+ creatives who are staking a claim to classical art, Opera MODO proclaims that queer folks belong everywhere, even in the highly gendered world of traditional opera.
“When we had our premiere performance last year, people told me that it was the first time that they'd seen pieces of their identity put on stage and felt safe seeing them,” says Roache, tears in their eyes. “They said they felt celebrated. And that's the point, you know? That's the point.”Opera MODO will bring "D[x]n Pasquale" to Detroit June 9 and 10, Saugatuck June 17, Grand Rapids June 18 and Traverse City June 21. Tickets at operamodo.com.